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End of Mission Statement by Ms. Urmila Bhoola, Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences to the Country visit to Niger (11-21 November 2014)

From 11 to 21 November 2014, I conducted a country visit to Niger in my capacity as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences.

I would firstly like to express my gratitude to the Government of Niger for the invitation to visit and for its co-operation and support with ensuring unrestricted access to the communities and villages that I expressed an interest in visiting. In particular I am indebted to the Ministry of Justice for support with facilitating meetings with key official stakeholders.

During my visit I had the opportunity to meet with the Prime Minister, several ministers and senior government officials, representatives of the legislative and judiciary as well as state prosecutors and other law enforcement officials, religious leaders and traditional chiefs, the National Human Rights Commission, local and international non-governmental organisations, labour unions, researchers, members of the diplomatic community and the United Nations Country Team.

Although the mission was mainly based in Niamey, I had the opportunity to visit villages in the regions of Tillabéry and Tahoua in order to discuss the issues pertaining to my mandate with local authorities and communities and to obtain their views first hand.

Lastly, the success of the mission was largely due to the efficient logistics and resources placed at my disposal by the United Nations Resident Coordinator and the UNDP.

I am grateful to every person who contributed to the mission, and am especially indebted to the residents of villages I visited who took the time to explain to me the challenges they have undergone and the steps being taken to create alternative livelihoods.

Today’s statement presents some preliminary observations and makes a few recommendations. A report on my visit to Niger with final recommendations will be presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council in September 2015.

Legislative and institutional framework

The Government of Niger has demonstrated strong political will to address slavery and slavery-like practices. Niger ratified both the Slavery Convention of 1926 and the 1956 Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery. The country is also a party to core international human rights treaties and several International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions, including those relating to forced labour and worst forms of child labour.

In terms of its regional obligations, Niger ratified the Banjul Charter and is a member of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). It was the ECOWAS Court of Justice that in 2008 held Niger liable for compensation for failing to protect a citizen from slavery (case of Hadijatou Mani Koraou v. The Republic of Niger). I was fortunate to meet Ms. Koraou.

Niger has put in place a comprehensive legal and institutional framework to address slavery and slavery-like practises. To mention just a few:

  • The Constitution of 2010 stipulates in its Article 14 that no one shall be submitted to slavery. The Constitution of 1999, which preceded it, contained a similar provision.
  • In 2003 Niger amended its Criminal Code (Law No. 2003-25) to impose substantial penalties for the crime of slavery and for offences of slavery. A key enabling provision of the Code is the legal standing granted to associations, which have a mandate relating to fighting against “slavery or similar practices”, to initiate criminal proceedings against perpetrators. The Criminal Code defines the use of children for begging as a criminal offence in Article 181.
  • In 2010 Niger passed Ordinance No. 2010-86, which established institutional mechanisms to combat human trafficking, including for slavery and slavery-like practices. The Ordinance provided for the creation of the National Coordination Commission and National Agency for Combatting Human Trafficking, which were formed following the adoption of relevant decrees in 2012. To operationalise the Ordinance, in July 2014 the government adopted a five year National Action Plan on Combatting Human Trafficking.
  • Law No. 2012-45 of 25 September 2012 updated the Labour Code, which provides further legal protection from slavery-like practices. It prohibits forced labour (Article 4), prescribes the minimum age for child labour and hazardous labour, as well as prohibits, in Article 107, the worst forms of child labour.
  • A National Human Rights Commission was established under Law No. 2012-44 and has the figts against slavery as part of its  mandate.

Clear legal standards are critical to ensuring effective enforcement of the rule of law and have resulted in prosecutions for the crime of slavery and offences of slavery. I have been informed about several decisions that have been handed down, including the first conviction for the “wahaya” or “fifth wife” practice by the Birni N’Konni court on 26 May 2014 (case of Timidria v. Elhadji Jadi Razikou).

In discussions with state prosecutors, I was informed that denouncing of slavery and slavery related practices has increased slowly. However, there seems to be a lack of awareness of the legislation in place, limited access to legal aid and lack of adequate victim support.

Slavery and slavery-like practices

I was informed that while vestiges of traditional slavery might still exist in some parts in Niger, notably in Agadez, Tahoua and Tillabéry regions, modern forms, related to human trafficking, are more predominant, as well as  stigmatisation and discrimination against people considered to be of slave descent, including in terms of land ownership and marriage.

The “wahaya” or “fifth wife” practice mentioned previously, which is said to still exist in certain regions, entails purchase of a woman or a girl as a slave under the guise of “marriage”. I had the opportunity to visit the villages of Zongo Ablo and Aroki (Tahoua region) where “wahayu” who fled from this form of slavery and their descendants have been supported by non-governmental organisations to create alternative livelihoods. Several interlocutors mentioned that the sale of girls into sexual slavery continues to exist and these are procured mainly for members of the Nigerian elite, particularly in Birni N’Konni and its surrounding areas.

The phenomenon of children in forced begging is another example of a slavery-like practice that was brought to my attention. Many interlocutors expressed concern about the fact that there have been no successful prosecutions of those marabouts (religious teachers) who force Koranic students (talibés) into begging purely for economic gain. This is a practice contrary to Islam and is also prohibited in the law. It was explained to me that the ease with which parents hand over their boys to marabouts, who do not receive any payment from the parents, is a means of poverty alleviation  for many families.

However, it was reported that increasing numbers of boys run away from their marabouts and end up living as street children. Their poverty, lack of education and lack of social protection renders them vulnerable to exploitation, abuse and trafficking. This practice has to be eradicated and some interlocutors proposed formalising Koranic education as well as continued awareness raising about forcing children into begging being legally prohibited. I understand that this phenomenon is being addressed, including by means of a national forum planned by the Ministry of Population, Women Empowerment and Child Protection.

A rehabilitation and removal programme, known as SEJUP (Services Educatifs, Judiciaires, et Préventifs), has also been implemented by the Government, in terms of which street children and children in conflict with the law are assisted and provided with vocational skills training. However, it would appear from the information received that a more coherent strategy with effective monitoring and follow-up of rehabilitation programmes needs to be undertaken.

Although according to the information provided by the Ministry of Labour, in 12 years 15,000 children have been removed from performing worst forms of child labour and rehabilitated, there are reports that child labour is still prevalent in remote gold mines, slaughter houses and in quarrying. Projects under the ILO International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) have had a positive impact on removing children and building schools for example in the gold mining village of Mbanga, which I had the opportunity to visit.

Domestic servitude is another form of contemporary slavery that continues to affect women and girls, who are mainly forced into this work to escape poverty. As I was explained, those involved in this work are mainly from neighbouring countries (Benin, Togo and Mali), but there are also Nigerien girls who are brought to work in urban areas from rural areas. They are often subjected to physical violence and abuse, paid very little, sometimes subject to debt bondage by their recruiters, work long hours and have very little if at all weekly rest period. As I was informed, this work is not regulated by legislation.

I am concerned that child marriage, which can result in child slavery, is on the increase despite advocacy and sensitisation programmes. The Nigerien Civil Code permits marriage of girls over the age of 15 and boys over the age of 18. Attempts have been made to reform the legislation to increase the marriageable age of girls but this was not successful. The Minister of Population, Women Empowerment and Child Protection indicated that the strategy was to address this traditional practice through emphasising to parents the increased risks of obstetric fistula and maternal and child mortality caused by child marriage. Child marriage was said to be widespread because of the stigma attached to being unmarried and pregnant, as a result of which parents conducted marriages of girls at an early age. However, many interlocutors pointed out that this was often a poverty alleviation measure for parents.
Stigmatisation and discrimination of people of slave descent continues and this is also true for people from the caste of butchers, blacksmiths and traditional musicians. Even where a person of slave descent acquires wealth or achieves professional success, his/her or name will always carry the taint of slavery and will be accompanied by social stigma and discrimination despite this.

Conclusion

It is clear from the legal framework described earlier above that extensive law reform has been undertaken by the Ministry of Justice to create the necessary framework for eradicating slavery and slavery-like practices. However, gaps in legislation, delays in adopting national action plans and setting up of institutional mechanisms remain key challenges. In some cases further law reform seems to be required and I was informed that certain laws are not specific enough. I am pleased to hear that further law reforms are envisaged.

In addition, a number of enforcement and implementation challenges exist, and the administrative infrastructure to support certain laws is still pending. Despite the fact that customary practices, which conflict with civil law, are invalid, in many instances these practices continue. Resource and capacity constraints also seem to limit effective law enforcement.

Attempts to effectively eradicate slavery and slavery-like practices are also constrained by a number of factors, including endemic poverty, food insecurity, high rates of population growth, and high levels of illiteracy. Niger was ranked last out of 187 countries in the 2014 Human Development Index. It is moreover a transit, origin and destination country for human trafficking for the purposes of contemporary forms of slavery. Key requirements for ensuring socio-economic stability and elimination of all vestiges of traditional slavery as well as slavery in its contemporary forms, as mentioned by my interlocutors, were poverty eradication, rule of law and good governance, education and socio-economic empowerment, and overcoming discrimination based on social origin.

Let me now mention some of my other preliminary observations:

  • Continued training of judicial and law enforcement officers is needed on effective enforcement of anti-slavery laws, including on upholding civil law where there are conflicting provisions in customary law.
  • There needs to be a sustainable awareness raising about the legislation, including by translating the anti-slavery texts, already in a compendium, into national languages in order to reach out to people.
  • A study of prevalence of slavery and slavery-like practices should be conducted in order to be able to develop targeted programmes aimed at eradicating specific practices and assisting all victims of slavery and slavery-like practices, including through the foreseen special compensation fund.
  • Centralisation of slavery cases and effective case management within the judiciary to ensure information sharing.
  • Increased access to justice for victims including the provision of state funded legal aid and victim support.
  • Socio-economic empowerment of people of slave descent through skills development and assistance with alternative livelihoods. Human rights and gender based perspectives need to be part of all poverty reduction and development programmes and strategies and the specific situation of those most vulnerable, including people of slave descent, needs to be taken into account.
  • Ensuring quality public education and facilities and implementing compulsory primary schooling particularly for girls, as well as addressing the disrupted schooling of nomadic children and education of children from poverty stricken areas and children of slave descent.
  • There is a need for strengthened enforcement of labour law through promulgating regulations and administrative structures to oversee the legislation. In this context the strengthening of the labour inspectorate is important to ensure increased monitoring of forced labour and worst forms of child labour contraventions.
  • And lastly, continued political leadership including that of traditional chiefs and religious leaders to ensure a culture of respect for human rights, eradication of slavery and slavery-like practices and prevention of discrimination against those of slave descent.

To conclude, Niger has made significant progress as far as eradication of slavery and slavery-like practices is concerned but requires additional support to accelerate the pace of implementation and enforcement. Civil society organisations, both national and international, as well as the donor community have made a significant contribution in this regard. It is through increased support that the Government of Niger will be able to eradicate vestiges of traditional slavery as well as the emerging contemporary forms of slavery. It faces a tough road ahead with the challenges of poverty alleviation and changing customary practices, which entrench discrimination based on gender and social origin.  

I extend my thanks once again to everyone for the successful mission and look forward to engaging further with the Government of Niger on the issues related to my mandate.

Thank you for your attention.